Republican senators revolt over coronavirus proposal

Senate Republicans are deeply divided over their own coronavirus package, underscoring the uphill challenge for the party as they hunt for leverage in talks on the fifth stimulus bill.

GOP leadership and the White House unveiled their own approximately $1 trillion bill this week, in what was supposed to represent a unified negotiating stance by the administration and Senate Republicans as they start talks with House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiGOP lawmaker: Democratic Party 'used to be more moderate' White House not optimistic on near-term stimulus deal Sunday shows - Stimulus debate dominates MORE (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerMeadows: 'I'm not optimistic there will be a solution in the very near term' on coronavirus package Biden calls on Trump, Congress to enact an emergency housing program Senators press Postal Service over complaints of slow delivery MORE (D-N.Y.)

But just a day later, several GOP senators are trashing their own party’s proposal, which they expect will only get worse during talks with Democrats, and predicting mass defections on the final coronavirus bill. 

ADVERTISEMENT

“It’s a mess. I can’t figure out what this bill’s about,” said Sen. Josh HawleyJoshua (Josh) David HawleyMcConnell: 15-20 GOP senators will not vote for any coronavirus deal Trump plans to order Chinese company to sell TikTok's US operations: reports Hillicon Valley: Trump raises idea of delaying election, faces swift bipartisan pushback | Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google release earnings reports | Senators ask Justice Department to investigate TikTok, Zoom MORE (R-Mo.). “They’re going to go negotiate with Pelosi. We have no idea what the final bill will be, and we’ll be the last to know.”

Sen. John KennedyJohn Neely KennedyMORE (R-La.) added that among Republicans “we have unity in disagreement.” Meanwhile, Sen. Ben SasseBenjamin (Ben) Eric SasseOn The Trail: The first signs of a post-Trump GOP McConnell: 15-20 GOP senators will not vote for any coronavirus deal CNN chyron says 'nah' to Trump claim about Russia MORE (R-Neb.) said the negotiations were taking place between “two big government Democrats,” Treasury Secretary Steven MnuchinSteven Terner MnuchinWhite House not optimistic on near-term stimulus deal Sunday shows - Stimulus debate dominates On The Trail: The first signs of a post-Trump GOP MORE and Pelosi. 

“This proposal is not targeted to fix precise problems — it’s about Democrats and Trumpers competing to outspend each other,” Sasse said.

Republicans say it's basically guaranteed there will be GOP defections on the fifth relief bill. Two GOP chairmen predicted that roughly half of the 53-member caucus could ultimately vote "no."

“You can see a bunch of people already pushing back that we haven't spent phase three yet and concerns about the deficit,” said Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamNavarro: 'Don't fall for' message from TikTok lobbyists, 'puppet CEO' Graham defends Trump on TikTok, backs Microsoft purchase The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - At loggerheads, Congress, White House to let jobless payout lapse MORE (R-S.C.), a close ally of President TrumpDonald John TrumpOklahoma City Thunder players kneel during anthem despite threat from GOP state lawmaker Microsoft moving forward with talks to buy TikTok after conversation with Trump Controversial Trump nominee placed in senior role after nomination hearing canceled MORE’s. “If Mitch [McConnell] can get half the conference, that'd be quite an accomplishment.”

Sen. Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntFrustration builds as negotiators struggle to reach COVID-19 deal Pelosi to require masks on House floor GOP, Democratic relief packages B apart on vaccine funding MORE (R-Mo.), a member of GOP leadership, added that “the previous COVID bills have passed almost unanimously, and I think that’s the exception rather than the rule.” 

ADVERTISEMENT

Significant Republican opposition would mark a U-turn from March’s $2.2 trillion coronavirus bill that passed the Senate in a 96-0 vote. Other coronavirus bills have passed with only a handful of "no" votes. 

Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneFrustration builds as negotiators struggle to reach COVID-19 deal Unemployment benefits to expire as coronavirus talks deadlock McConnell tees up showdown on unemployment benefits MORE (S.D.), the No. 2 Republican senator, said it was too soon to know how much GOP opposition there would be but that it wouldn’t be unanimous support. 

“I don’t think we know where our members are yet. I mean, it’s early on in a process that is probably going to take a while to fully conclude,” Thune said. “We’re not going to be able to write a bill that we get every Republican on, we know that.” 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellGOP scrambles to fend off Kobach in Kansas primary Meadows: Election will be held on November third Don't let Trump distract us from the real threat of his presidency MORE (R-Ky.) said Mnuchin and White House chief of staff Mark MeadowsMark Randall MeadowsMeadows: Election will be held on November third White House not optimistic on near-term stimulus deal Sunday shows - Stimulus debate dominates MORE would take the lead in the talks but acknowledged that GOP senators were divided. 

“I think it’s a statement of the obvious that I have members who are all over the lot on this,” McConnell said. “This is a complicated problem. We’ve done the best we can to develop a consensus among the broadest number of Republican senators.” 

Republicans raised concerns during a closed-door GOP lunch about the price tag of the coronavirus deal growing. Republicans stuck to their goal of a $1 trillion top line, but GOP senators are worried that it will tick upward as Mnuchin and Meadows negotiate with Democrats. 

“There’s a lot of discussion, expressed concern, that we stick to the lower number of a trillion rather than start talking already about where we might land. ... Too much drift to the left, you lose more Republicans and pretty soon you’ve put the whole process in the hands of the Democrats,” said Sen. Kevin CramerKevin John CramerThe Hill's Coronavirus Report: iBIO Chairman and CEO Thomas Isett says developing a safe vaccine is paramount; US surpasses 150,000 coronavirus deaths with roughy one death per minute McConnell tees up showdown on unemployment benefits Senate panel scraps confirmation hearing for controversial Pentagon nominee at last minute MORE (R-N.D.). 

Graham added that “people [are] worried about the top-line number” and “the amount to be spent is a concern.” 

GOP senators are publicly pouring cold water on either key provisions or the plan altogether, which came together during weeks of closed-door negotiations.

“I have problems with a number of provisions. I’ll wait and see what the final product looks like, but I’m pretty skeptical about the way it seems to be shaping up,” said Sen. Pat ToomeyPatrick (Pat) Joseph ToomeyDunford withdraws from consideration to chair coronavirus oversight panel GOP senators push for quick, partial reopening of economy NSA improperly collected US phone records in October, new documents show MORE (R-Pa.). 

Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzOn The Trail: The first signs of a post-Trump GOP Trump tests GOP loyalty with election tweet and stimulus strategy Republicans dismiss Trump proposal to delay election MORE (R-Texas) said that he was “very much” concerned and there was “vigorous discussion” and “sharp disagreement” among Republicans. Meanwhile, Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulMultiple lawmakers self-quarantine after exposure to Gohmert Gohmert tests positive for COVID-19 Republican senators revolt over coronavirus proposal MORE (R-Ky.) accused his colleagues of caring about election chances than the country’s fiscal health. 

“This was the big spending, big government meeting,” Paul said. “They’re bragging about how they’re going to spend more money than the Democrats.” 

ADVERTISEMENT

Sen. Mike BraunMichael BraunFrustration builds as negotiators struggle to reach COVID-19 deal Unemployment benefits to expire as coronavirus talks deadlock Democrats reject short-term deal ahead of unemployment deadline MORE (R-Ind.) said he was “unlikely” to support the final agreement, adding, “I think the price tag is going to be a deal breaker for many of us regardless of the content.” 

With coronavirus cases climbing across the country, and a slew of bad poll numbers coming out for Trump and Republicans in critical Senate races, Democrats believe they have leverage to drive the talks closer to their top line of roughly $3 trillion. 

“We have the leverage of the American people,” said Sen. Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinThe Hill's Campaign Report: Who will Biden pick to be his running mate? Don't count out Duckworth in Biden VP race Schumer: Trump should want COVID-19 deal to help GOP election chances MORE (D-Ill.). “I think Republicans are reading the polls. The president is slumping, their Republican Senate candidates are slumping in the polls. They have to show something.” 

The divisions aren’t just between Senate Republicans but also GOP senators and the White House.

GOP senators are critical of the decision to include $1.75 billion for the construction of a new FBI headquarters, saying it has nothing to do with combating the coronavirus. And McConnell and Thune both say they want the funding out of a final agreement. 

Trump, during a White House press conference on Tuesday, called the GOP proposal “sort of semi-irrelevant.” Asked if there were parts he opposed he said “yeah, there are.”

ADVERTISEMENT

Meadows and Mnuchin are both floating the idea of doing a pared-down coronavirus bill if negotiators aren’t able to get a deal quickly. Under that plan, Congress would pass a package that includes unemployment insurance, school funding and liability protections, and then continue to negotiate on other pieces like stimulus checks, state and local aid and money for testing. 

But Sen. John CornynJohn CornynFrustration builds as negotiators struggle to reach COVID-19 deal Chamber of Commerce endorses Ernst for reelection Mini-exodus of Trump officials from Commerce to lobby on semiconductors MORE (R-Texas) said while people have floated it, "I don't hear any support for that."

When a reporter noted that Meadows and Mnuchin seem interested, he added that those are “people who are not in Congress.”

The inability to sync up played out in real time this week. Mnuchin and Meadows, after talking to Schumer and Pelosi, walked over to McConnell’s office. 

Surrounded by their detail and a gaggle of reporters, they knocked on the front door to his main office. No one answered. As they knocked again, a reporter asked if they had a meeting with the GOP leader or his staff. 

“We were just going to give the leader an update if he’s here,” Meadows told reporters, adding that it was an impromptu drop-by. 

McConnell, a staffer later clarified, had already left the building.